Digital Transformation

How the tech behind the creepy ads that follow you around the internet works

Ever searched for a product, then had ads for it appear everywhere? Adweek's Josh Sternberg talks about that phenomenon, and why automated ad positioning isn't always a good thing.

Companies drop pixels or cookies to track you, Adweek's Josh Sternberg told TechRepublic's Dan Patterson. "It's seeing web history, your interests, based on what you're searching for on search engines or the sites that you visit or the links that you click on."

Watch the video interview above, or read the full transcript below.

Patterson: What about the creepy ads? Let's talk a little bit about how automation, machine learning, data analysis leads to that weird creepy feeling of, "Jeez, that shoe ad kind of followed me around the web. It's not locked into one publisher's website. It's locked into me." How does that happen?

Sternberg: Not very well actually. So, to that example, I bought a pair of New Balance sneakers about three weeks ago. For the last three weeks, I've been getting served New Balance ads. So, if I'm New Balance, this is wasted money, right? [B]ecause your target consumer already spent. I'm not buying new sneakers anytime soon. So, part of that is the technology, which is not as evolved as some would like it to be. That whole serving the right ad at the right time to the right person, there's still some kinds to it. And a lot of brands are finding that when they are buying these ads programmatically or through these machine-based systems, they don't know where their ads are ending up, and that's where things can kind of get even dicier.

So, you are Nissan or you are Honda and all of a sudden your ads are being played on the YouTube channel in front of a beheading, you're not happy. This is an issue that's been going on for the last six or seven years, and every time the industry starts to make movement in fixing that, they take two steps back. It's often a giant game of whack-a-mole because there are so many bad actors, and the algorithms and the AI mechanics and the machine learning, these tools are getting so much better at ... navigating how the web operates.

Patterson: How do cookies work?

Sternberg: You put them in the oven and then you eat them. No. Companies will drop pixels or cookies to track you, and often it's not personal identifying information, at least that's what we're told.

SEE: Google bans ads for cryptocurrencies, wallets, and exchanges on its platforms (TechRepublic)

Patterson: When you say drop, a consumer visits a website and that website places a cookie?

Sternberg: Yep.

Patterson: Take me down to the very pedestrian level.

Sternberg: Sometimes the website, sometimes it's the ad. Each page is made up of pixels and you can target a particular pixel to follow particular audiences across the web.

Patterson: This pixel has a piece of code in it or it somehow identifies me by the code it dropped in my web browser?

Sternberg: Right. It's seeing the web history. It's seeing your interests based on what you're searching for on search engines or the sites that you visit or the links that you click on.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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